Research or Propaganda?

My Seven Favourite Bloopers and Outtakes from the EVZ/Pears Institute study Antisemitism and Immigration in Western Europe Today

Paul Klee, Analysis of Diverse Perversities, 1922, ink and watercolour on paper mounted on card, 24 x 31 cm

This text is part of a broader critique of the work of the London-based Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (affiliated with Birkbeck, University of London), which celebrates the tenth anniversary of its establishment this year. Here I focus specifically on the metastudy, Antisemitism and Immigration in Western Europe Today: is there a connection? Findings and recommendations from a five-nation study, published in 2018. It summarized the findings of a major research project commissioned by the Berlin-based Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ) that was directed by the head of the Pears Institute, David Feldman, who co-authored the report on the UK and wrote the summary I am concerned with here.

While the conclusions of the report have been questioned on political grounds, relatively little attention seems to have been paid to its actual mechanics, which are my principal focus in this discussion. That said, as will become obvious, the mechanics of the report can hardly be separated neatly from its politics. I originally wanted to write this review as soon as the report came out but since I didn’t rate my chances of getting it published anywhere, I’ve only felt motivated finally to put it together now that I can publish it on my blog. On the plus side, this way I do not need to couch my critique in euphemisms to try and smuggle it through the peer review process and can resort to a more entertaining mode of presentation that might also appeal to a broader readership. And, as I say, my discussion of this particular study forms part of a broader critique of the Pears Institute undertaken, in case this needs saying, not in order to give the Pears Institute a hard time for the sake of it but to raise important issues in the academic research on antisemitism, current efforts to combat antisemitism, and the nexus between them (watch this space!)

I would not dream of laying claim to some form of scholarly “objectivity” nor am I at all opposed to partisan scholarship. If I did or were, I would have to dismiss all my own work out of hand. However, partisan scholarship is only partisan scholarship if, as well as being partisan, it is also scholarly. This brings with it the need to comply with transparent methodological standards and a commitment not merely to posit conclusions but genuinely to demonstrate why one’s own inferences are more plausible than the alternatives. In short: if you want us to give your sums serious consideration, they had better add up!

It is perfectly legitimate to undertake research designed to provide evidence for a particular pre-assumption. This is probably the norm rather than the exception, though researchers may not always want to admit this to themselves or others. One does, however, need to reflect upon the ways in which one’s pre-assumptions might shape one’s perceptions in unhelpful ways and, not least, might tempt one to short-circuit the process and attribute evidence which may, at first glance, seem to match one’s pre-assumptions but, on closer inspection, does not actually bear them out.

Nor is there anything wrong with cherry-picking data that others may have interpreted in a way that differs from one’s own assessment. Indeed, it can be particularly instructive to explore why one and the same set of data has been interpreted in different ways by different scholars (which, I hasten to add, is not the same as saying that any interpretation is as good as any other). What is problematic, however, is the cherry-picking of interpretations. If one and the same authority in one and the same context and supposedly on one and the same empirical basis arrives both at inferences one shares and others with which one disagrees, one surely needs to scrutinize both cases to ensure what one considers the right conclusion is not based on invalid grounds.

Finally, at the very least, one should be honest about one’s intentions. If I happen to prefer Schumann but for some reason have been or feel compelled to write a book about Schubert, it really ought to be about Schubert rather than a manifesto for Schumann’s superiority devoted to impressing on readers that they ought not to be interested in Schubert in the first place. If that is what I want to write, then I should sell it as just that and not as a book about Schubert.

It would be silly of me to try and hide the fact that I do indeed think that Feldman and his colleagues have inclined, and in fact set out, to minimize the significance of antisemitism among Muslim migrants in Western Europe in general and the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq who arrived in large numbers between 2014 and 2016 in particular. However, virtually all the issues I will be highlighting in this discussion would be equally concerning, even if I shared Feldman’s conclusions in every possible respect. The right conclusion on the wrong grounds may be the best we can ask for in the public and political spheres, among scholars in the humanities and social sciences, however, there can be no such thing as a right conclusion on wrong grounds. Conclusions on wrong grounds are by definition wrong.

Framing

It is hard not to be impressed (positively or negatively, depending on one’s own view point) by the extremely strident tone of Feldman’s metastudy. This can perhaps best be illustrated by comparing its opening section to that of another study covering some of the same ground which Feldman also cites: Günther Jikeli’s Einstellungen von Geflüchteten aus Syrien und dem Irak zu Integration, Identität, Juden und Shoah [The Attitudes of Refugees from Syria and Iraq towards Integration, Identity, Jews and the Shoah], published in Berlin in 2017. So, first, here is Feldman (p. 7):

Migrants entering Europe from the Middle East and North Africa have been symbolically central to the migration debate since 2011. … As part of this debate there is a persistent claim that new migrants to Europe, and specifically migrants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA migrants), carry antisemitism with them. This assertion is made to different degrees in different countries and can take different forms. Nevertheless, in Europe, the association of rising antisemitism with migrants from the Middle East and North Africa is widespread and needs to be evaluated (p. 4).

Compare this to Jikeli (p. 4):

The increase in antisemitism in Germany and worldwide is causing considerable unease … One cannot attribute antisemitism merely to one social group. We find it both on the right and the left of the political spectrum and at the heart of society. Nor are immigrants immune to antisemitism. … The fact that a fairly large proportion of the refugees comes from countries in which hatred of the Jews is integral to state propaganda and the education system raises the entirely legitimate question of whether the threat of antisemitism increases with the arrival of the new immigrants and, if so, what can be done to stop this.

What one already senses when reading Feldman’s introduction in isolation is thrown into sharp relief by this comparison. For Feldman, the actual problem evidently lies not in the possible antisemitism of at least some of the migrants or refugees in question but in the claim that this antisemitism (which, as it turns out, he by no means denies) is a significant factor that needs to be taken into consideration. His principal frame of reference is “the migration debate” and its symbolism. For Jikeli, by contrast, the problem lies in the possible antisemitism of the refugees and its potential significance. Feldman wants to debunk what he considers racist rhetoric, Jikeli wants to find out whether there is a problem with antisemitism among the refugees and, if so, how best to describe and assess it.

Of course, there are (at least) two other crucial distinctions between these two studies. Firstly, Feldman’s point of departure is the claim that antisemitism has not only not increased but has in fact decreased substantially in recent years. While he concedes that large numbers of Jews and Jewish organizations claim otherwise he is confident that he has the figures to prove his point. Needless to say, this automatically turns Jikeli into an alarmist, given that his point of departure is the misguided concern caused by a merely imagined increase in antisemitism. I will come back to this issue later.

Secondly, the remit of the project undertaken by Feldman and his colleagues is much broader (and therefore much less specific) than that of Jikeli’s study. One can just about imagine what happened here. First, there was a long-standing debate on the long-term implications of the long-standing immigration of significant numbers of people from Muslim-majority countries to Western Europe. In this debate, antisemitism generally played a fairly subordinate role, occasionally thrown into sharp relief in the last decade or so by Islamist acts of terror directed specifically at Jewish individuals and/or institutions. (Since I’m being descriptive, not normative here, there is no need to get into the Islam and Islamism issue at this point.) Then came the massive influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, especially in 2015, which raised specific concerns about antisemitism. After all, nobody can reasonably deny that in the mainstream cultures of these countries various antisemitic delusions are not only considered but actively propagated as self-evident truths. It is telling that of the examples Feldman enlists to demonstrate the way in which “Muslims” have (to his mind, in an unjustified and alarmist way) been “associated” with antisemitism, one is from 2015, while all the others are from 2016 and 2017.

But rather than tackle this specific problem, some inspired individual or group of individuals decided that one might as well use the opportunity to fund and flog a study on the back of this heightened concern with the new refugees’ antisemitism to try and kill two birds with one stone. The effect, inevitably, has been a far-reaching muddying of the waters. As one throws freshly arrived refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq into one pot with second- and third-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany, second- and third-generation Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and second- and third-generation immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent in the UK, the entirely foreseeable outcome is that we end up not really learning anything substantial about any one of the groups in question. Ironically, this procedure does exactly what Feldman does not tire of vehemently criticizing: it throws all Muslims or, rather, all people from Muslim-majority countries (though this distinction may be lost on Feldman), into one pot. Yet from his point of view this procedure also has three distinct advantages.

Firstly, the more entities one tries to assess in one go, the more diffuse and complicated the picture inevitably becomes. This can be a good thing in that it requires us at least to try and do justice to deviations from the general rule; it can also serve as a means of obfuscation, however, beating the reader into submission with ever more mutually attenuating or contradictory data.

Secondly, when one focuses on the lowest common denominator among an extensive range of groups whose backgrounds and circumstances vary considerably, any actual problem almost inevitably becomes an unrepresentative outlier and can then essentially be dismissed.

Thirdly, this procedure also provides an opportunity to imply that those who have expressed concerns specifically about the possible or likely antisemitism of recent refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq also share all the other concerns that have at various points been aired in connection with the long-term implications of the long-standing immigration of people from Muslim-majority countries in Western Europe. Before you quite know what has hit you, unless you agree with Feldman and his colleagues, you find yourself sitting in the same boat as various fairly unsavoury far-right politicians and parties.

The actual thrust of Feldman’s argument becomes clear, not least, when we turn to the section “Social and Political Concentrations of Antisemitism”. Its purpose, he explains, is to “address the question of whether, despite the overall picture,” i.e., the universal retreat of antisemitism in general that he previously claims to have demonstrated, “there are high or rising levels of antisemitism among particular social or political groups or whether antisemitism clusters in particular spheres of public debate” (p. 24). This section consists of two parts: “Muslims and antisemitism” and “Antisemitism and the far right”. That Feldman, having served as vice chair of the Chakrabarti whitewash, thinks that there is absolutely nothing to see on the left is only to be expected. Yet what exactly is the purpose of devoting the best part of a page to “Antisemitism and the far right”? That the real problem always resides on the right is mentioned time and again throughout the report anyway.

This is, of course, an elaborate form of whataboutism and virtue signalling. Rather than clarify in the introduction that the focus of this study is in no way meant to detract from the significance of other forms of antisemitism and then get on with an examination of the actual significance of the problem supposedly in hand, Feldman’s text is in effect one long lament about the outrageous fact that the bizarre claims of right-wing racists and Islamophobes have forced him to write a report about something of absolutely no significance. Feldman obviously cannot deny that the antisemitism among Muslim migrants in general and the refugees in question in particular, on average, far outstrips that of their host societies at large. Yet he wants to explore neither what this means in detail nor what its actual significance might be. One can only assume that for him, these questions are inherently illegitimate and merely help to distract from, and thus facilitate, the antisemitism of the political right.

Let me introduce one more example to illustrate the problem. Not only Feldman and his colleagues, but a number of authors working in this field, get very excited about the “claim” that refugees “import” antisemitism into their new countries, that they “bring it with them”. This seems to be a deeply reprehensible, inherently racist suggestion, yet this assumption is based on nothing but projection. People who move to other countries, for all that they may subsequently be transformed and change, surely take their ideas and sentiments with them. We are constantly being alerted to all the wonderful things immigrants bring with them and contribute to our culture. Yet their antisemitism apparently stays behind. Now, Germany both grows her own tomatoes and imports tomatoes from elsewhere. She also imports vegetables that cannot be homegrown. One can surely acknowledge that Germany imports exotic fruit without denying the existence or significance of homegrown tomatoes. Only once one takes a sort of mercantilist approach to antisemitism (there is only so much critique to go around, hence, if I try to combat one form, I have to give way on the others), or for one reason or another only wants certain forms of antisemitism to be considered significant, does it seem plausible to see something inherently sinister in the suggestion that refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq bring their antisemitism (such as it may be) with them or “import” it into their new countries. If there is one thing that is absolutely certain, it is that there will always be more than enough antisemitism to go around!

“Quality Control”

One more preliminary remark is in order. Social scientists are big on quality control which, in our context, means that we can’t have people running around just being antisemitic willy-nilly without a methodologically sound stamp of approval. If somebody wants to qualify as an antisemite, they need to deliver the goods and really mean it. Anyone who can still count the number of his or her antisemitic delusions on the fingers of one hand or wouldn’t bet their entire savings, home and children on each one of them needs to go back and retrain.

In short, virtually all the surveys you may read about in the press presuppose that interviewees have responded positively not just to one or two but to roughly half a dozen antisemitic statements or more. In the case of the ADL Global 100 Anti-Semitism Index, which Feldman cites approvingly, respondents need to agree with at least six of eleven antisemitic statements. Moreover, many studies also try to measure the intensity of antisemitic delusions. Hence, one German survey (ALLBUS 2006, 2012) offers you seven possible answers to the question of whether the Jews exercise too much power in the world. That’s true refinement for you.

One may be tempted, of course, to invert the logic of this practice. As the authors of a paper published in 2017 by the EKD, the umbrella organization of mainstream Protestant churches in Germany, have noted, of all the respondents involved in the various frequently cited surveys, a mere eleven per cent actually reject any and every antisemitic statement (Antisemitismus: Vorurteile Ausgrenzungen Projektionen: Und was wir dagegen tun können [Antisemitism: Prejudice Exclusion Projection: And how we can combat them], p. 4).

As a result of this common practice, studies making claims about the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes that do not base their conclusions on respondents having committed to a sufficient number of antisemitic attitudes can easily be discredited. Whatever one may make of this objection, my point here is this: if one applies this criterion, one surely needs to do so transparently and consistently. Yet Feldman, as we will see, likes to introduce this objection when he dislikes certain findings yet fails to apply it to findings that suit him.

This alerts us to a wider point. Most of the findings presented by social scientists undertaking the sorts of surveys that have fed into this metastudy come with a range of qualifications and caveats explaining, for instance, why respondents may have given the answers they thought were expected of them rather than expressing their actual views. The purpose of a metastudy is obviously to summarize and assess the findings of other studies, not simply to repeat their content. In the process, many of the qualifications and caveats that complicate the picture in the original studies are inevitably left behind in order to arrive at a more or less robust set of conclusions. Yet here too the same applies as before: this needs to be a transparent and consistent process. Moreover, one may want to reflect on just how strident on can really be on the back of data that come with substantive caveats.

I appreciate that I am probably going to come out of his looking pretty obsessive anyway. Even so, believe it or not, I do have better things to do than scrutinize every syllable in Feldman’s report or comment on every potential or actual imprecision it contains. In what follows, I am merely presenting my seven favourite bloopers and outtakes. They mostly pertain to Germany.

1 Cherry-picking statistical criteria

Please compare and contrast these two passages from Feldman’s report:

[A]ntisemitic attitudes are found not to be a general characteristic of Muslims in Germany but arise only among a minority. A survey among the largest ethnic group, those of Turkish background, found that 49% of the interviewees expressed a positive stance to Jews, 21% adopted a negative one and 30% did not answer one way or the other (p. 23).

With regard to antisemitism among refugees we have evidence from only a few studies. One focused on Bavaria and found that a majority (55%) of refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan agreed with the statement that Jews have too much influence in the world (p. 27).

Just with the naked eye, one is likely to note two distinctions. Firstly, the surveys obviously look at different groups. Of the Turkish migrants at the heart of the first survey, 60 per cent were first-generation migrants who, on average, had lived in Germany for 31 years, the other 40 percent were born in Germany.

Secondly, the first finding suits Feldman, the second one does not. Hence, he qualifies the second finding as follows:

We should note, however, that although this provides evidence of the diffusion of a particular antisemitic idea it does not satisfy the criteria widely used to identify antisemites or antisemitism: this would require positive responses to a series of negative stereotypes.

Note the inverted commas around the words antisemites and antisemitism. More importantly, however, how many questions do we think the Turkish respondents who produced what Feldman thinks is a good result (on which more in a moment) were asked? Yes, you’ve guessed it. They too were asked only one question and a leading one of the kind no serious researcher interested in antisemitism would use, at that. But who cares when you like the result? In fact, one might even suggest that these respondents were not even asked one whole question because what they were actually asked was: “How do you regard the members of the following groups?” The four groups in question were: Germans with no migration background, Christians, atheists and Jews. This obviously framed the question as one concerned above all else with Jews as belonging to another religion. Indeed the focus of the study is clear from its title: Integration und Religion aus der Sicht von Türkeistämmigen in Deutschland [Integration and Religion as Seen by People of Turkish Descent in Germany].

Feldman’s satisfaction with the attitudes of the Turkish non-refugee respondents merits a number of further comments:

  • As you may recall, Feldman’s report synthesizes five country-specific studies based on the research project undertaken under his direction. These particular findings come from the report on Germany. Yet its author, Mathias Berek, was evidently rather less impressed by Feldman’s non-antisemitic “majority”. Berek summarized these same findings as follows (p. 58, emphases added): A survey among the biggest group of Muslims in Germany, with a Turkish background, supports the finding of a widespread enmity towards Jews: while 49% of the interviewees expressed a positive stance to Jews, 21% adopted a negative one and a suspicious 30% refused to give an answer.
  • The German Turks in question may only have been asked one (or one quarter of a) question about Jews but they were allowed a range of responses. These were: “very positive”, “more positive”, “more negative” and “very negative”. Feldman’s majority of 49 per cent consists of eighteen per cent who stated that they felt “very positive” about Jews and 31 per cent who opted for the qualified category of “more positive”. Of the 21 per cent who admitted to disliking Jews, nine percent opted for “very negative”.
  • The number of non-responses in each instance is noteworthy. Only ten and fifteen per cent, respectively, failed to answer the question about their attitudes towards Germans with no migration background and Christians, yet when it came to atheists and Jews, it was 24 and (as mentioned) 30 percent, respectively, suggesting, as Berek rightly notes, that the interviewees were particularly nervous about these questions. At no point was the issue of Jews in a non-religious capacity, let alone of Israel, raised with these interviewees.
  • In term of possible intercultural influences, given that Feldman likes to cite the ADL Global 100 Anti-Semitism Index, it is worth pointing out that among the MENA countries last assessed in 2014, Turkey came in second from the bottom. Of the Turkish respondents “only” 69 per cent responded positively to six or more of the eleven antisemitic statements. That rate rose slightly to 71% in 2015. By contrast, Iraq, one of the countries some of the recent refugees have actually come from, came in second only to the Westbank and Gaza. Of the Iraqi respondents, 92 per cent agreed with six or more of the eleven antisemitic statements.
  • As for the refugees in Bavaria surveyed by the second study, alongside the 55 per cent who fully agreed with the contention that Jews exercise too much power in the world, 21.3 percent of the Syrian respondents, 13.3 percent of the Iraqi respondents and 19 percent of the Afghani respondents stated that they partly agreed. All in all, then, some 70 per cent agreed with the statement to varying degrees. As in the first study, what Berek could again have identified as “a suspicious” 30 percent of respondents from these three groups did not respond at all, suggesting that this was a sensitive issue many felt they were better off leaving well alone.

2 Cannibalizing Your Own Contributors

When (on page 26 of 28) Feldman does eventually turn to what is actually known about the attitudes of recent refugees, rather than migrants, many of whom have lived in their new countries for two or more generations, he is very impressed with a study that has not one thing to say about Jews or antisemitism but in which virtually all the respondents (96 per cent) professed their passion for democracy. To be sure, 21 per cent at the same time expressed their desire for “a strong leader who does not care about parliaments and elections”. But the figures for Germans with no migratory background are apparently almost identical on both counts. “These results support the anti-alarmist camp,” Feldman concludes (p. 27).

This formulation comes straight from Berek’s report on Germany. Berek indeed concluded, though with a slight qualification, that these findings, “as a tendency, … support the camp of the anti-alarmists”. However, Berek immediately added (p. 63):

As a caveat, however, the answers may reflect the influence of social desirability. After all, how else would a refugee reply on leaving her integration class (where she learned how highly democracy, civil rights and equality are officially esteemed in the country that hosts her) when an academic researcher with a laptop questions her about precisely these values?

3 Cherry-Picking Years

Feldman’s contention that antisemitism has been retreating since 2011 is based, inter alia, on the numbers of officially registered (officially registered is an important qualification here) antisemitic criminal offences in Germany:

[T]he level of antisemitic criminal offences reached a peak in 2014 notwithstanding the dramatic growth in the number of MENA migrants the following year (p. 21).

This is Feldman’s summary of the following passage in Berek’s report on Germany (which is prefaced by a list of caveats I shall return to in a moment):

Regarding antisemitic incidents recorded by the police, there is no sign of a rise in antisemitic criminal offences after the increased immigration in the second half of 2015. After a peak of 1,596 cases in 2014 , in 2015 there were 1,366 cases, a decrease to the level seen in 2013 (1,275 cases ). Anti-Israel offences developed along the same trend. In 2013 there were 41 cases; in 2014, 575 cases ; in 2015 62 casesThe long-term trend even shows a slight decline in the still-high numbers, with the peaks coinciding with rising tensions in the Arab-Israeli conflict (p. 52).

Now, whatever one may or may not be able to say about the long-term trends these figures signify, one can state with absolute clarity that they do not lend themselves to easy interpretation, certainly not to the facile claims Berek and, even more so, Feldman base on them. Let me make a couple of points to illustrate this:

  • The numbers actually fluctuate quite considerably and do not consistently follow the imputed logic. For example, the number of offences registered in 2015 was higher than the equivalent number in the third year of the Second intifada (2003). In the run from 2001 to 2015, the third-highest number of offences was registered in 2005, the year in which the Second Intifada petered out and Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Discounting 2012 as a year of heightened conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, while the number of registered offences in 2011 was indeed smaller than the previous year, the number of offences registered in 2013 was larger than the equivalent numbers in 2010 and 2011 (though admittedly by only a small margin). While Berek suggests that the number of offences registered in 2015 reflects “a decrease to the level seen in 2013”, it was in fact seven percent higher than the number registered in 2013, which is surely a significant margin. I am not trying to deny that the base line has been markedly lower since 2010 than it was in the previous decade, I am merely trying to suggest that one might be slightly more modest with the claims one wants to base on these numbers.
  • More importantly, given that the report was published in April 2018, it is surely astonishing that the figures for 2016 (published on 24 April 2017) were not taken into consideration. Indeed, even allowing for the fact that a project of this kind requires a fair amount of coordination and Feldman could not very well be expected to synthesize reports that had not already been written, if one had really wanted to know, there would have been ways of extrapolating provisional numbers or at least a sense of the order of magnitude for 2017 as well. The number of registered antisemitic offences in fact increased by 7.5 per cent in 2016. Though Feldman and his colleagues obviously could not know this at the time, the number of registered antisemitic offences has increased every year since. In 2019 it was 49 per cent higher than in 2015 and 27 per cent higher even than the “peak” of 2014, the year of the Second Gaza War. If nothing else, the fact that Feldman and his colleagues got it so wrong indicates how careful one needs to be when basing claims on numbers that are rather more complex than the claims suggest.
  • Of course, the inference implied in Feldman’s statement that “the level of antisemitic criminal offences reached a peak in 2014 notwithstanding the dramatic growth in the number of MENA migrants the following year” is arguably his silliest. Given his assumption that antisemitism automatically increases when the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians escalates, he should hardly be surprised that the number of antisemitic offences tailed off again in 2015. More importantly, most of the refugees arriving that year entered Germany between September and December. Even those extremely concerned about the refugees’ possible antisemitism would hardly have expected it to have an instant impact on the number of officially registered antisemitic offences. If we accepted Feldman’s facile implication, it would be equally plausible simply to posit that the increase in the number of offences in 2016 must therefore be down to the refugees. Moreover, given that the new arrivals of 2015 and 2016 increased the German population by no more than 1,5 or two per cent at the most, it would follow that they were 3,8 to five times more responsible for antisemitic offences officially registered in 2016 than the rest of the population. This would be nonsense, to be sure, but no more nonsensical than Feldman’s glib inference.
  • Let me turn, finally, to some of Berek’s caveats. As Berek points out, when antisemitic offences are attributed to (far) right perpetrators, this by no means implies that their responsibility has actually been established, it merely means that the police forces have assumed that the perpetrators are likely right-wing. Given that not all police officers are antisemitism experts and that in Germany antisemitism is still associated above all else with the Shoah and the Nazis, the odds are that a significant number of antisemitic offences is automatically attributed to right-wing perpetrators by default, simply because this seems to be the most obvious explanation. This is a well-known problem that has been discussed at great length but has so far not been resolved satisfactorily. Berek also explains that antisemitic offences are “often” wrongly registered as anti-Israel offences, especially when the perpetrators are foreigners or migrants. There have been several spectacular cases in Germany in which the distinction between anti-Israel and antisemitic offences has been taken to absurd lengths, resulting in a considerable outcry. In other words: one can be about as certain as one can ever be that the number of antisemitic offences committed by right-wing perpetrators is substantially overstated and the number of antisemitic offences perpetrated by foreigners and migrants is substantially underreported. Little wonder that Feldman had little interest in carrying either of these caveats forward, let alone affording them appropriate consideration. This points to an important vicious circle. The imprecise statistics lead scholars to overstate the relative significance of right-wing antisemitism, which in turn encourages police officers to assume that most antisemitic offences are most likely perpetrated by right-wing antisemites, even though no specific evidence points in this direction.

This points to an important vicious circle. The imprecise statistics lead scholars to overstate the relative significance of right-wing antisemitism, which in turn encourages police officers to assume that most antisemitic offences are most likely perpetrated by right-wing antisemites, even though no specific evidence points in this direction

4 & 5 Antisemitism and the Critique of Israel

Example 1: Feldman praises a substantial report published in 2017 by an independent committee of experts on antisemitism which the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) commissioned in 2013 to prepare expert advice on the issue. He writes:

The Antisemitismus in Deutschland (2017) report, produced by an expert group commissioned by the German Bundestag, points out that when making judgements we should take into account not only what people say but also to whom, in what circumstances and with what intentions. We follow Antisemitismus in Deutschland in acknowledging the existence of a grey zone with regard to criticism of Israel, which leads to legitimate disagreement over what is and what is not antisemitic (p. 19).

If one looks at the relevant section of Antisemitismus in Deutschland, it transpires, firstly, that the report’s authors squarely place the burden of proof on the person making any statement that might be perceived of as being antisemitic. Here is what the report states:

The decisive question is therefore who says what to whom and whether the criticism ascribes traits to a putative Jewish collective or forms part of an indirect mode of communication in which Israel merely stands in for “the Jews” to legitimize antisemitic assumptions, as it were.

This much can be stated clearly: entering into a discourse that entails a critique of Israel’s policies always raises the problem that utterances can at least be understood as ambivalent and comments about Israel are definitely antisemitic when they utilize established stereotypes or justify the murder of Jews (p. 28).

I rather doubt that this is what Feldman had in mind when he grudgingly concedes that “there are times when criticism of Israel and/or of the Zionist idea also provides an occasion for antisemitic rhetoric and behavior” (p. 19). This is a glorious formulation not least in that it illustrates the way in which, for Feldman, the problem is not that people rise to the “occasion” but that the “occasion” presents itself. For him, the subject is never the antisemite (unless, of course, he comes from the far right), it is always the antisemitism that makes the antisemite its plaything (on this, see also https://bridging-the-chasm-at-my-own-peril.blog/2020/05/24/pears-institute-it-was-the-reservoir-what-done-it/).

For Feldman, the subject is never the antisemite (unless, of course, he comes from the far right), it is always the antisemitism that makes the antisemite its plaything.

Example 2: As I mentioned, Feldman does cite Jikeli’s 2017 study, though only in passing. Feldman is particularly taken with Jikeli’s finding (in Feldman’s paraphrase) that “[m]any, but not all, interviewees emphasized the difference between talking about Jews and talking about Israel” (p. 27).

Here are the relevant passages from Jikeli’s study:

Many of the interviewees stressed that they distinguished between Jews and Israel. Yet especially those who were particularly hostile towards Israel rarely managed to do so. Others, by contrast, are quite explicit about making no difference between Israel and “the Jews” (p. 9).

The assumptions of the interviewees regarding Jews, on the one hand, and Israel, on the other, frequently bleed into one another, even among those who initially stress that they draw a substantial distinction between Jews and Israelis (p. 23).

In most cases, the frequently drawn explicit distinction between Israelis, on the one hand, and Jews, on the other, is designed to distance oneself from antisemitism while maintaining the legitimacy of one’s hostility towards Israel (p. 28).

Jikeli also clarifies that, as a rule, when his respondents referred to “the occupation”, they meant not the disputed territories but the disputed territories and the entire territory of Israel (p. 24). All this notwithstanding, various forms of traditional antisemitism (all Jews are rich etc.) in fact outweighed expressions of Israel-related antisemitism among the respondents. None of this is compatible with Feldman’s relevant assumptions.

6 Cherry-Picking Interpretations

It is not without irony, given how big Feldman is on explaining why criticism of Israel is far too often denounced as antisemitic for no good reason at all, that he would introduce, in his general survey of prevalent perceptions, the Report on Antisemitism in 2016 published by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs as his only example of a non-alarmist exception to the alarmist norm (p. 14), quoting its statement that “the wave of immigrants from Muslim countries is not causing an increase in antisemitism” (p. 10). Perhaps he thought this was a particularly clever ruse. If so, he was being too clever by half. Now, this statement in the report is, of course, not an inference based directly on a specific set of data but an overall judgement. Why, then, is this conclusion about the general trend any more credible than the same report’s concern, say, about antisemitism on the British left (as we saw, antisemitism on the left does not even exist in Feldman’s metastudy) and its critique of the Chakakrabarti whitewash of Labour antisemitism that Feldman helped facilitate?

More specifically, one could also probe the data which has actually gone into the report to identify potential caveats. In the case of Germany, for example, the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs report explains that “Federal German government figures indicate that between January and September 2016, 461 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in Germany” (p. 36). Who knows what went wrong here, but the actual figure for the entire year turned out to be 1,468 (7.5 per cent more than the year before). (There is an added irony here, of course. These—erroneous—figures for 2016 would have been well suited to support Berek and Feldman’s—erroneous—contention that the number of officially registered antisemitic criminal offences in Germany was continuing to decrease. But I guess this is the problem when your cherry-picking gets all too selective: you miss not only the conclusions that militate against your own inferences but also the data that would seemingly work for you.)

Finally, I would have thought that it is also clear from the fact that the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs report referred to the “wave of immigrants from Muslim countries” (emphasis added) that the focus here was not on second- and third-generation immigrants but on the recent influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

7 Self-Contradiction

Alongside his conviction that we really ought to focus all our energies on right-wing antisemitism and forget about all other forms of antisemitism, Feldman has one more killer consideration up his sleeve that, for him, clinches the argument. Recent migrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries may hate Jews but they are far too busy to do anything about it:

The evidence from all five countries strongly suggests that the daily lives of recent refugees and migrants are framed by insecurity. Their priorities are to find a place to sleep, to acquire papers and to learn the language of their new country of residence in order to find paid work. In short, their daily life is shaped by the exigencies of their difficult situation rather than by commitment to antisemitism or to any other prejudice or ideology (pp. 26/7).

Jikeli, incidentally, makes the same point. For him, this presents an opportunity he thinks ought to be used to ensure that the initial integration process allows for and promotes critical reflection upon accepted antisemitic assumptions. For Feldman, it merely proves that we do not need to worry about the antisemitism among recent refugees and migrants that even he cannot deny. (We might note in passing, that this qualification obviously does not apply to the non-recent migrants on whom the bulk of his study actually focuses.) Yet only two pages earlier, Feldman explains that antisemitic behaviour does not presuppose a commitment to some form of prejudice or ideology: “we know that a good deal of antisemitic behaviour is ‘antisocial’ and ‘opportunist’ in nature, without any clear ideological or religious motive force”, he writes there (p. 24).

Personally, I am not entirely convinced that Feldman is doing the recent refugees and migrants the favour he thinks he is doing them by stressing that they may hate Jews but are too busy to do anything about it. One nonsensical but logical consequence would be to ensure that their circumstances stay as precarious as possible so that they will never not be too busy to engage in antisemitic behaviour. On the other hand, we also know that gradually increasing integration, in and of itself, does not solve the problem because second- and third-generation immigrants tend to grow more dissatisfied with the measure of integration they have achieved the more integrated they actually become, and they tend to be more, not less antisemitic than their first-generation forebears. I suspect that Feldman does not touch on this issue because he thinks of “integration” as a sinister or, at best, double-edged concept. But this is a discussion for another day.

Emphatically stressing the connection between partial or failing integration and antisemitism, Feldman also dropped another one of Berek’s caveats:

It would be questionable indeed to attribute antisemitism only to the circumstances instead of taking people seriously as acting and responsible individuals who make decisions. Otherwise one would be unable to explain why many Muslims with discrimination experience do not entertain antisemitic thoughts (p. 60).

*

Of course, once the headlines have been generated—“No link between Muslim immigration and anti-Semitism, German study says”, “On ne peut faire aucun lien entre l’antisémitisme et l’arrivée des nouveaux migrants”, “‘Antisemitismus ist kein allgemeines Merkmal von Muslimen’: Hat die Judenfeindlichkeit in Europa durch die Zuwanderung zugenommen? Einer Studie zufolge lässt sich diese verbreitete These nicht bestätigen” etc.—none of this really matters any more. But while some may be comfortable with the idea that all is fair in public engagement and politics, it should not be so in scholarship. That said, if there is one thing I have learnt in the last twenty years it is that academics can get away with almost anything—except pointing out what other academics are getting away with.

         

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